Diarmaid Ferriter: Cultural path from Edna O’Brien to Sally Rooney

Ireland has a long way from its 1960s ban on Country Girls to praise for Normal People

Edna O’Brien: has acknowledged the censorship and outrage bruised her. Photograph: Frank Miller

Edna O’Brien: has acknowledged the censorship and outrage bruised her. Photograph: Frank Miller

 

Novelist Edna O’Brien has been bestowed with numerous awards at this stage. They still matter; “an incentive”, she said recently at the age of 88, “to keep going”.

That is perhaps O’Brien’s most remarkable achievement; to keep going over 60 years during which her work rate has been astonishing.

Many readers will be brought back to the beginning of her literary career this month as her Country Girls trilogy (1960-1964) has been chosen as Dublin’s One City One Book.

A whole series of events is taking place countrywide to honour her work; most ironically, given her fame as a banned author from the outset of her career, the trilogy is available to borrow for free throughout the public library network.

This, it seems, is the ultimate act of atonement for what O’Brien was subjected to after the appearance in 1960 of The Country Girls and beyond; what she described in Julia Carlson’s 1990 book Banned in Ireland as being “really savaged”.

This was not just about being subjected to systematic censorship as a professional writer; it was also about a very personal rejection: “a bit of affirmation either from the family or the community helps a lot, especially when you start off. I had none.”

Nor had she a cultural hinterland to nourish her when young; not just because of hostility at home in Clare, but because, as recalled in her memoir, she came of age in a town with no library, three grocers and 27 pubs.

‘Flesh-and-blood women’

O’Brien has acknowledged that the censorship and outrage bruised her: “But I’m not bitter; bitterness is boring.”

She had far too much to do anyway: “Writing is my life, my existence, not only how I earn my living, but also my inner existence.”

What O’Brien did in the 1960s was challenge the idea that women should keep their thoughts to themselves. As Declan Kiberd was later to characterise it, what was most impressive was “the unerring accuracy of her eye and the deft rightness of her phrase”.

These convinced many that in her books “were believable, fallible, flesh-and-blood women, neither paragons nor caricatures”.

Kiberd suggested O’Brien was “arguably the writer who made many of the subsequent advances in Irishwomen’s writing possible, and she continued to craft a prose of surpassing beauty and exactitude”.

O’Brien was 'arguably the writer who made many of the subsequent advances in Irishwomen’s writing possible'

The wider urge to expose women’s desires and fears also found its way into non-fiction during O’Brien’s first decade of publishing; this year marks the 50th anniversary of Dorine Rohan’s Marriage: Irish Style which analysed a wealth of sexual dysfunction, ignorance and inhibition as well as acceptance of God’s will.

One mother of nine children told Rohan “Whoever said you were supposed to enjoy sex? Sure, aren’t we all here to suffer and the more we suffer in this life, the better it will be for us in the next.”

Sally Rooney writes, like O’Brien once did, about intense teenage relationships that endure into adulthood. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Sally Rooney writes, like O’Brien once did, about intense teenage relationships that endure into adulthood. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

‘A choking society’

This was a reminder of one of O’Brien’s main complaints about Ireland and why she left for London. Hell, it appeared, was always closer than heaven, which amounted to “a choking society”.

Many other women have elucidated the sort of damage that atmosphere did, including Mary Holland who suggested O’Brien’s book Casualties of Peace (1966) dealt with “the darting, furtive guilt about sex which begins at our first convent kindergarten and maims too many of us for too many years afterwards”.

Later, Nuala O’Faoláin in Are You Somebody? (1996) wrote about women enduring multiple pregnancies, like her mother: “Because she fell in love with my father and they married, she was condemned to spend her life as a mother and a homemaker. She was in the wrong job.”

O’Faoláin also wrote starkly about how so many childhoods were abruptly ended by the experience of sexual violence in a matter of seconds, out of the blue: “I was never afraid till I went to The Messiah in the Theatre Royal when I was 11, and a man put his hand up my skirt and hurt me with his fingers.” A similar scene occurs in O’Brien’s 1997 novel Down by the River.

O’Brien attracted opprobrium for tackling what she described as the 'ecstasies and doubt' and the 'rapture and the ruptures' of emotional and sexual experiences

O’Brien attracted opprobrium at various stages for tackling what she described as the “ecstasies and doubt” and the “rapture and the ruptures” of emotional and sexual experiences and the disaffections they could create.

Consider the contrast between how O’Brien’s work was initially received and the experiences of Sally Rooney, who was born in 1991 in Castlebar, which she describes as “a very bookish part of Ireland”.

Her mother, Marie, ran the local Linenhall Arts Centre. Rooney also writes, like O’Brien once did, about intense teenage relationships that endure into adulthood. Rooney, however, has been praised for the way she writes about sex.

The wheel has also turned full circle to the extent that Rooney likes to describe herself as “normal” or “boring”.

O’Brien, in contrast, has always been propelled by what she calls “the disturbance within”, which disturbed much without that needed disturbing.

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